Night is a wonder—as great a mystery as death and just as beautiful, terrible and luminous in both its first and last moments. It requires much more imagination than does the day, a necessary result of less light. In darkness we sleep, we dream, we wake up and go to the bathroom. Sometimes we sit alone and think, read, write, watch, listen and otherwise tend to our innermost thoughts and feelings. Either that or watch TV.
That is what Anthony, Frank and I are doing. Watching TV and smoking pot. It is dark outside, we are hungry and there is nothing suitable in the house—only things like bread, milk, eggs, raw vegetables, canned soup and so on. Frank refuses to drive his car when he is high, an admirable if sometimes inconvenient quality. Anthony says he has things at his place we can eat. “Like what?” Frank asks. “Lots. We got frozen pizza, cokes, cookies, chips, you know, things like that.” Frank puts on his happy face as he passes the bong to Anthony. “Sounds good. Let’s go.”
Anthony lives with his mother and two brothers three streets over. He is the youngest and shares a large room with the oldest brother who works in the oil fields and is almost never home. This works out well for Anthony since the use of his brother’s TV, stereo and records is seldom interrupted. His mother works and takes care of everyone in the house. Not only does she shelter, feed and clothe them. She supports the younger brothers’ school activities, activities that include baseball, basketball, ROTC, debate and drama, takes them to church every Sunday and accepts that one of them has several friends that she suspects may be a bad influence in one glaring respect but not overtly horrible in most others. Frank and I suspect that our parents think of Anthony as a good influence and of ourselves not so much, at least where Anthony is concerned. We never smoke in his mother’s house, but that does not mean she cannot smell it on us when we visit. She has never said anything to us, but Anthony has made us both implode in fits of coughing and laughter during his impersonations of her warnings and admonitions regarding the sins and dangers of pot, alcohol and cigarettes. I feel guilty admitting to this, but what else can I say? Sometimes the three of us are assholes. There is no acceptable excuse for such behavior and none is offered. If, on the other hand, an apology is rightly demanded by an injured party, it is freely and sincerely given, especially if we’re high. We live by a code.
With his mother’s permission, he puts a large bottle of Coke, a bag of chocolate chip cookies and a frozen pizza in a paper sack. Frank and I tell his mother thank you. On our way out Anthony says he will be home by nine.
As soon as we turn the corner, Frank takes a joint out of his pocket lights it and passes it to me. I pass it to Anthony who passes it to Frank. In the time it takes to walk from one streetlamp to the next, it is gone.
Next on the agenda, women. Frank and I are both in love with the same woman and, for his part, Anthony is ready to listen. I say she is my muse and “Under love’s heavy burden do I sink.” Frank comes back with, “God made woman beautiful and foolish; beautiful that man might love her; foolish that she might love him.” Anthony is quick to respond, “Frank one, Lewis zero.”
So lost are we in our fog of colloquy, we do not pay attention to the car approaching us from behind until it pulls alongside and slows to match our speed.
“What are you boys doing out?”
A police officer, one hand on the wheel, has asked us a question through the open passenger window of the police car.
I’m the closest. “Going to my house.”
“What’s in the bag?”
“Mind if I take a look?”
He pulls around and in front of us, turns off his lights and stops the car. We stand and wait. Through the glass we see him looking at us in his rearview mirror as he puts his cap on. Walking toward us, he puts out his hand and says, “Let me see that.” Andrew gives him the bag. He looks inside, hands it back.
“You know you boys smell like grass.”
Busted but without any evidence on us, we remain silent.
“You been smoking?”
Frank speaks up, “No, sir.”
The officer gives the appearance of thinking things over. “I tell you what. I want you to empty your pockets out on the trunk in three little piles, walk up front, lean against the car and spread your legs. Give me that bag.”
While we empty our pockets, he puts the bag in the front seat.
I don’t have much in my pockets—some cash, house keys and gum. Frank has money and the keys to his car. Anthony has a billfold. The officer picks up Anthony’s billfold and empties it out. There is money, a driver’s license, some pictures of his family and a key tucked into the hidden compartment you can easily find in almost any billfold. “What is this for?” “That’s the key to my house.” Anthony’s response seems to agitate the officer. “The key to my house what?” Anthony looks confused and replies, “Excuse me?” “I said the key to my house what, boy?!” “The key to my house, sir.”
He frisks us, but there is nothing to find. We put our personal items back in our pockets and wait. He looks back and forth at us, one to the other, as if trying to make up his mind about something.
Addressing Frank he asks, “I’ve got one question for you. What are you two boys doing out at night walking the streets with this one here?”
“His name is Anthony.”
“What did you say?”
“I said his name is Anthony.”
“I don’t give a damn what his name is. I’m asking what you’re doing walking around with a nigger.”
“He’s our brother. Lewis and I are adopted.”
“You punkass little . . . . Get in the car!”
Anthony exclaims, “What?!”
“All of you. Get in the car right now. Do it!”
He opens the back door and we climb in. As he starts the car Frank asks, “Where are we” “Don’t talk! Not one word! None of you!”
We take Line Avenue south until it becomes Ellerbe Road and turn right on Highway 1. We follow that to 509 and take a right. We are out in the country. We drive for another fifteen minutes before turning onto a dirt road that ends in a small flat area surrounded by trees. He turns off the car, opens our door and tells us to get out. Even with the car lights off, I can see clearly under the full moon. The field is dotted with gravestones.
The officer nods his head toward the trees. “I think maybe me and your brother here should take a walk and talk.”
“Can we t-talk here instead?” I blurt out, stuttering, my mind panicked and racing.
“I suppose so. Move away from the car a little first.” He seems calm. Too calm.
We do as he says.
Standing about five feet away from us he looks around before he starts. “You know, I’ve been thinking on the way here that we might have gotten off on the wrong foot. I know I can be a little hot-headed. But there was no reason for you to talk to me like that.” He looks directly at Frank. “I’m talking to you, son.”
“I’m apologize if I said anything to offend you.”
“Then why did you do it?”
“Because you called my friend names.”
“Well that’s what he is.”
“Not to me.”
“Well that’s what he is to me. Why shouldn’t I call him that?”
Frank doesn’t hesitate. “Would you like it if I called you that?”
The officer takes a sharp breath before he speaks, his voice uneven, full of emotion. “Now listen here, you son of a bitch. Not only do you disrespect me, but you do it in front of him. You realize what kind of example that is? What does that say about me if I let you talk to me like that?” He takes his pistol from the holster and holds it pointing downward. “Now this is how I see it. As far as I’m concerned you’re all niggers. All three of you. It’s easy to tell this one’s a nigger but you two may as well be. I don’t know what’s happened to this world, but I’ve had all about all of it I can stand. Now I’m going to make you a deal. If you all get down on your knees and beg, I might just let you go. Otherwise, I’m going to shoot you right here.”
In an even voice Frank says, “Don’t do it. Don’t anybody do it.”
The officer takes a step forward and puts the end of the pistol in Frank’s face. “Listen here you little punk. I’ll kill you. I mean it.”
Frank, Anthony and I stand there, waiting. I’m really, really scared. My body is telling me to run, but I don’t because I know, in this instant, everything is balanced on a thread.
An eternity goes by. He slowly lowers his pistol. First he looks at Frank. Then he looks at me. “You two. Turn around and start walking. But you leave this one with me.”
Frank is shaking. He screams in the officer’s face. “NO! WE’RE NOT! IF YOU’RE GOING TO SHOOT US, FUCKING SHOOT US! BUT WE’RE NOT LEAVING ANTHONY! FUCK THIS SHIT!”
Time has stopped for us but not for the woods and the field. I hear cicadas in the distance. I feel the air against my skin. I look into the eyes of the man holding the gun. I wait.
He puts his pistol back in its holster. “Alright. Alright . . . You two get in the car.” He turns to Anthony. “You stay here.”
Driving away, Anthony looks at us and we look back at him. Standing erect in the middle of the field with his hands at his sides and the moon shining down he looks like the negative of a picture taken of a statue in a graveyard. No one speaks during the ride home. The officer drops us off at the same place he picked us up.
As soon as he turns the corner, Frank says, “Let’s go!” and breaks into a run.
I follow him to his car and we join the race to Anthony. Frank drives as fast as he can, taking chances in the curves, passing cars like they’re not even moving, refusing to slow down for anything.
We find Anthony walking along the road near the place where we left him. His first words are, “Are you guys ok?”
“Yeah. We’re fine,” Frank says as he turns the car around, driving like a normal human being again. “Listen up. Everybody keep an eye out for that crazy motherfucker’s car. If you see it, duck down.”
“I don’t think he’s coming back,” says Anthony.
When we drop Anthony off in front of his house, I tell him, “Just tell your mother that Frank and I kept you out and that we’re sorry and we promise never to do it again. She’ll believe you.”
“Sounds good,” says Anthony.
I’m not ready to go home. Neither is Frank. Instinctively, he drives to Mac’s Dairy Dream because they have the best hamburgers and shakes in town. We listen to Abbey Road on his 8-track while we eat. Only once does Frank turn the volume down long enough to say, “I really love this car.” I laugh. He says, “No. You don’t understand. I really love this car. I’m going to marry this car. I’m going to have her babies.”